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Mystery Shopping is Nothing to Fear

Posted by Kristin Baird on June 25th, 2008 • No Comments »

There has recently been a lot of discussion in the media lately about mystery shopping in healthcare. Although the AMA Ethics Committee has recommended using mystery shopping, there has been push back from its members. I believe that the objections may be due to lack of information about mystery shopping and what it can do for the provider.

Having been on the provider side of healthcare for the better part of 30 years, I can tell you that I have seen my share of service improvement opportunities. I can also tell you that I have seen my share of disgruntled patients who will never speak up about their frustrations but will quietly vote with their feet while we squarely place blame on HMO’s and insurance companies for the loss of market share. Although reimbursement may have some bearing on patient decisions to leave a practice, it is not responsible for all of the defection. It’s time that we take an honest look at the patient experience and do what is within our power to become more customer-centered in our approach. After all, happy patients are much less likely to sue. And, happy patients are loyal patients and are much more likely to speak positively about their experience which can help you to grow market share.

Let’s start with the fact that few providers have a handle on the prospective customers that never walk through the door because they were turned off during the initial phone encounter. Mystery shoppers can give a clear idea about the first impression a hospital or medical practice gives when a caller makes contact.

Mystery shopping is not intended to judge clinical competency but rather, how the patient felt about the encounter. I look at the healthcare providers’ responsibility like this: Everything about the customer encounter must instill trust that we are delivering on the promise of safe, high quality health care. Everything a customer sees, hears, smells, and touches should be aligned with the promise. Did he feel respected? Did he feel his privacy was guarded? Did he understand what was said? Did he feel confident that he knew what to expect next? Was he kept informed? Did the physical environment instill confidence about cleanliness and privacy?

These are only a few of the things that a mystery shopper can tell us about an encounter. And more often than not, it is the little things that make the biggest difference in boosting or destroying a patient’s confidence. Take the example of the patient who is in the waiting room and overhears staff members discussing the medical staff when one of them says, “I wouldn’t take my dog to that surgeon.” The mystery shopper wondered, “were they talking about my doctor?” Or the patient who must step onto a scale in a public hallway and the scale has a large digital display. So much for the privacy thing. Or the pediatric clinic that has a crinkled paper sign posted at the elevator that reads, “This elevator eats little fingers. Please keep your children back.” I pictured precocious little readers that endured a decade of nightmares. And how about the person who is about to draw blood and says, “I am whipped. I’ve been on for 16 hours.” I don’t know about you, but when someone is coming at me with a large bore needle, I like to think that they are on their top game.

Each of these examples are taken from actual mystery shopping experiences. And each of them was done in organizations that felt they had done staff training and were struggling with low scores on patient satisfaction surveys. Face it. We’re human and will often see past what is normal to us. When we can see our world through fresh eyes, the information can be invaluable. So fear not. Mystery shoppers can help shed light on some important information. And chances are, the solutions won’t be costly.

Baird Consulting


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